We can’t commiserate

One scenario I’ve encountered more than I’d like, as the Black acquaintance of many kind-hearted white folks waking up to the reality of racism, is the attempt to form a bond of solidarity over my personal, ongoing trauma. If that sentence seems awkward and wrong, that might be due to the clumsiness of the situation I’m trying to describe. I suspect these conversations spring partially from empathy and from distress over a specific evil conscientiously privileged people and myself now commonly hate (white supremacy) and partially from the same anxiety that seems to guide performative allyship in all its forms—namely the fear of being identified as part of the problem and an overwhelming desire to prove oneself to be one of the good guys. It’s as if we live under the constant threat of being thrown into a game of racism tag, and white friends talking to this Black woman suddenly remember, at random, that they must establish, beyond a shadow of a doubt, they are emphatically not it.

Performative allyship reflex (a phrase I admittedly coined for this think piece) shows up in many uncomfortable ways, from random remarks about favorite Black personalities (sports players and singers are high on the list) to out-of-place recountings of personal acts of anti-racist heroism to literal declarations of, “I just love your people!”

But the kind I’m writing about today packs a particularly painful punch, and this is how it unfolds: To prove their recognition of racism as a permeating presence poisoning our everyday interactions, or to prove how it bothers them as much as it bothers me, or maybe just to process a heaviness they aren’t used to sitting with, well-meaning white connections share a disturbing event with me so that we can react together. “My uncle said x,y,z, and I was just so mortified.” Or, “I can’t believe so-and-so thinks they can say the N-word.” Or even, “Did you hear about that recent murder (fill in any case of police brutality)? The dash cam video was just so awful I couldn’t watch.”

It’s hard to explain what I feel when I’m thrown into these conversations, often without warning. For one, I’m an introvert who processes heavy feelings in isolation, often through writing, and rarely face-to-face (a situation I have repeatedly found to be frustrating at best and often downright damaging). In fact, my first line of defense when interacting with a world constantly dehumanizing me, creating, compounding, dissecting, or minimizing my most essential and life-defining pain is that mask Paul Laurence Dunbar* speaks about:

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

And that’s just my baseline. After reading a news story about a child in New England who was lynched by his peers, when white acquaintance Joe asks me how I’m doing, the mask stays firmly in place while I smile and bring up the weather, pretending I’m not stuffing down secondhand trauma. But if Joe goes on to bring up said horrific event, processing his own reaction with me, confiding that a brown friend once told him she was threatened with lynching and reflecting on how upsetting it has been for him to realize this violence is real and closer than he thought, my grasp on the mask becomes desperate. Underneath it, my triggers send waves of adrenaline coursing through my limbs while Joe gazes imploringly at me, waiting to see how his offering of commiseration will be received.

But we can’t commiserate. I’m not shocked nor even simply miserable, nor helpless in realizing white supremacy still rules the land. I know it viscerally, in every fiber of my body. I have experienced it in ways I can never unlearn and ways which he will never comprehend, no matter how hard he tries.

I suspect Joe feels these confessions make us closer, imagining we are experiencing similar emotional reactions over a specific appalling event. But, of course, I don’t feel closer to him at all. I see myself and my children in that noose, while he sees his neighbor. Our reactions are worlds apart, and on top of that, I’m deeply hurt (though unsurprised) that he is more concerned with my approval of his allyship, or with processing his own journey of racial consciousness—using me as a sounding board—then he is concerned for my well-being in this constant onslaught of psychological violence.

Empathy is a poignant teaching tool, and I recognize that a first step in the process of empathy is relating personally familiar, lived experiences with the experiences of others. When someone you know is going through grief, a natural reaction is to remember how you felt when you lost a loved one. But if you haven’t lost a loved one, how much space should you and your experiences take up in a conversation with a widow burying her spouse? Would you mention a neighbor who lost recently their mother? Would you bring up your most recent abstract musings on death and its ripple effect? Or how embarrassed you are by your insensitive uncle who doesn’t think grief is real?

Yet, when it comes to race-based trauma carried by people of color (POC), we are often expected to hold space for the experiences of observers, following their cues, rather than leading discussions about our own pain at our pace and at moments of our choosing, when we feel safe. I can only speak for myself when I say this dynamic not only complicates my personal healing process but often makes it difficult to form deeper, more meaningful relationships with white connections who seem to want them.

A sense of safety is paramount to trust, and trust is the foundation of any measure of healthy intimacy, including friendship. We can’t commiserate over the impact of racism when the impact we experience is fundamentally different, but I believe it is possible to dialogue in a way that creates and fortifies healthy connections if we can establish safety and trust. To do so, we must put aside the performance and build on the understanding that POC carry substantial trauma—trauma very different from non-POC—and that discussions connected with our trauma happen when we want them to, in a way that is empowering for us. Let the people with the trauma initiate. Let us set the pace and the boundaries, and then respect them.

*The Dunbar poem quoted is titled “We Wear the Mask” and can be read in its entirety here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44203/we-wear-the-mask

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The prison of unfounded positivity

The release of Marvel’s Black Panther really spoke to the Black writers here at Black Girl in Maine Media, and this week, we are offering our reflections on the film. Today Samara Cole Doyon shares her thoughts. 

Like almost every Black person I know, I went to see Black Panther this weekend and have already made plans to see it one more time. One more time this week, that is. Who knows how many times I will see it while it remains in theaters, and you can bet your life I will wear that Blu-Ray out almost as soon as it’s in my collection. To say I enjoyed the latest Marvel comic- turned-blockbuster would not only be an understatement, it would be missing the point entirely. As I told my Facebook friends, this movie was a necessity for personal and collective healing:

I honestly found myself weeping in the theater, not as a reaction to any typical sappy scene, but because I finally had the opportunity to view a black nation projected with beauty and strength. I saw us humanized through the lense of mainstream media, IN A SUPER HERO MOVIE!! After so many years of watching us get shot and left to bleed out in the street, get choked, get locked up, get demonized, being projected as evil, broken, weak and needy, even by those attempting to “help,” I needed this movie more than words could express. The world needed this movie.

After experiencing such an incredible glimpse into true empowerment and liberation, the question naturally arising for many is, “How do we get to Wakanda?” For some, it’s an almost literal line of inquiry: How can we form a separate nation-state, free from the devastation of imperialism, colonization, and white supremacy? For others, it is more of a metaphysical quest: How can we create space in our own communities to foster Black innovation, provide uniform access to quality education, support Black entrepreneurship, and protect ourselves from systematic violence via police brutality, racist legislation, the predatory prison industrial complex, and so on?

There are already more proposed answers to these questions than I have time or energy to give justice to, and I’m sure the discussion will only continue to grow more vibrant, reaching higher and further in the days to come. I’m profoundly grateful for that. I am in awe of the magnitude and the reach of hope and inspiration unleashed by images of our most powerful dreams coming true. The prophetic creativity displayed in Black Panther has breathed fresh life into the next leg of the movement, and we need that same prophetic creativity to sustain us in the work ahead.

It is imperative, however. to balance prophetic dreaming with pragmatic planning. Until Wakanda is on the map, we continue to live, breathe, and move in an environment shaped by all the evils we strive to escape. The scarring is a deep and daily occurrence, and we can’t heal systematically wounded humans until we mend, escape, or destroy the destructive system holding us captive.

I often encounter the idea, and not just from white folks, that we should “just get over” racism.  As though writers like myself intentionally dwell on inequity, oppression, and personal trauma as a means of excusing ourselves from the work of community building or to emotionally manipulate white folks and other privileged people into showering us with charity, leaving ourselves incapacitated to create change. This is backwards, garbage thinking. I don’t want anybody’s pity. It is useless to me, lessening our power and making us smaller in the eyes of the privileged. Furthermore, I understand all humans are working through layers of trauma and oppression, many of which both intersect and transcend the boundaries of race—patriarchy/toxic masculinity, generational abuse, transphobia, homophobia, and economic oppression just to name a few.  Life isn’t peaches and cream for any of us.

I don’t point out the disproportion and intersection of trauma, the many layers of inequity within systematic oppression, to try to earn some martyr’s medal or to excuse myself from continuing the work of the ancestors. I do my best to tell the truth about injustice, because I want us to start acknowledging that our nation and our state can and must do better by the marginalized among us. We can and must create a more beautiful reality for our children to dwell in. I have no desire to move others to pity, but it is imperative that more of us are moved to equitable action, spurred to the labor of reparations.

We can’t create Wakanda by spinning the web of lies so many prefer us to remain trapped within, the prison of unfounded positivity ensuring freedom remains beyond our reach. We can’t pretend slavery and its trauma are in the past, that everyone in this country has the same opportunities, that safety and wellness are a choice—Kum ba ya, hearts and rainbows. No. We must acknowledge the current injustice in order to rectify it. This nation and this state need to seriously address police brutality. We need to address policies restricting access to resources of empowerment, such as quality education, employment, actual healthcare, nutrition, and mortgage loans. We need to create more just and powerful representations of people and communities of color. We need to support POC in their businesses. We need to stop protecting white supremacist terrorist groups and their campaigns of hatred and carnage through distortions of “freedom of speech” and the “right to keep and bear arms.”

There is so much to be done, and none of it will happen if our eyes and our mouths remain shut in order to sustain comfortable delusions. We must lay a foundation of justice, making wrongs right again, so that the dream of Wakanda can become a more tangible reality.

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But sometimes you’re wrong

Yesterday, my four-year old said something profound and refreshing, in the effortless, unrehearsed way four-year-olds say almost everything. She told me, “I’m really smart. But sometimes I’m wrong.” The timing of her statement was exquisite, as I had spent most of the morning brooding over some unexpected wounds and the loved ones who unintentionally created them. These wounds led me down a path of questioning motives and behaviors, good intentions and profoundly negative impacts, and the many ways in which we can be wrong, even when we are smart, kind, generous, and empathetic. Even the wokest among us prove to be acutely problematic on occasion. In the moment I simply responded, “Everyone is wrong sometimes,” but I let those words sink deeply into my own spirit.

The beauty in my daughter’s simple statement, of course, is the space it holds for multiple truths about herself. She acknowledges her own intellectual strength, without dismissing her fallibility, and the skill to do so is both powerfully healing and tragically lacking in Western culture. Too often our fragile egos and a perversely overwhelming drive to protect them gets in the way of doing the most important social justice work before us—the work we must perform on ourselves.

Take me as an example. I use ableist language. Not as often as I once did, but more often than I’m proud to admit. “Stupid, lame, crazy,” are all words attaching negative value to human states of being none of us are qualified to judge. “Crazy” is just a derogatory term for “mentally ill,” “lame” is a word that demeans the differently abled, and “stupid” is a word to describe someone as intellectually inferior to oneself. So if you stop and think about what it actually means to use one of those terms as an insult or as a descriptor, you start to really feel like an asshole. “She’s acting so mentally ill!” Is it empathetic and justice-seeking to demean someone for presenting signs of needing help or treatment? Of course not. This language is intensely problematic, and the damaging assumptions and stereotypes it upholds need to go.

Yet when someone points out that I’m using ableist language in a given moment, what happens? Honestly, it hurts my feelings for a minute, and a small part of me wants to shout out, “That’s not what I meant!” Still, I resist this urge, and I thank whoever is calling me out, because I understand intellectually that my problematic behavior doesn’t make me worthless or unlovable. It just means my good intentions aren’t serving me well through my language, and I need to make some adjustments. I’m an empathetic human being. But sometimes I’m problematic.

So often we seem gripped by an immense fear that admitting we are wrong about anything important disqualifies us from being well-meaning or conscientious individuals. It’s as if the possibility of imperfection lessens the value of anything we bring to the table of humanity, ever. And this dangerous dualism upholds a mountain of oppression and injustice, by preventing us from being accountable for the ways in which we embrace these destructive forces.

When it comes to systematic white supremacy, this dynamic is too prevalent for words. What I need all well-intentioned white folks seeking to be allies to know is this: You are guilty of complicity supporting systemic white supremacy. This is not an accusation of personal immorality. This is an acknowledgment of a devastating ideological poison which has saturated every inch of the globe, leaving no soul untouched, yet remaining largely imperceptible as the air we breathe. Do you ever breathe? You are infected with it. Profoundly. You are not so special or so good as to have somehow magically escaped.

If I, as a woman of color, have to vigilantly inspect my view of self and of my brothers and sisters, if I have to search my language, attitudes, and behaviors, to be sure that I am free of it, then you must fight it from within yourself as well. And you must be willing to hold multiple truths about yourself within your consciousness if you’re going to accomplish this. You may very well be a compassionate human being seeking social justice as best as you know how. But sometimes you will do and say things that serve racism. Are you willing to be called out? Are you willing to acknowledge your problematic language and actions (or problematic lack of action) and make some adjustments?

If so, consider removing these phrases from your collection: “I don’t see color,” “I have a black friend/significant other/child,” “I don’t have a racist bone,” “I have been doing racial justice work for X amount of years,” along with the knee-jerk reaction to deflect blame and avoid self-examination. Instead, try adopting a stance that invites constructive criticism and self-reflection. Remind yourself, “I’m still learning. I’m learning about how much I have personally benefited from a system which violently oppresses People of Color. I’m learning about my contributions to this system and doing my best to reverse them.” And instead of defending your good intentions when problematic words or actions (or lack of action) are pointed out, listen. Because no matter how much you learn about racism, sometimes you will still be wrong.

If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

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